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Minuteman's high-tech border barrier called 'a cow fence'

  • Story Highlights
  • Minuteman founder promised to build Israeli-style border barrier
  • Reality is five-strand, barbed-wire fence that rancher say keeps Mexican cows out
  • Former Minuteman members say they were fired after questioning fence plan
  • Arizona county official says building private border fence not possible
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By Abbie Boudreau and Ken Shiffman
CNN
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COCHISE COUNTY, Arizona (CNN) -- It was supposed to be 14 feet high and topped with razor wire. It was also supposed to send a message to Washington that if the government wouldn't seal off the southern border, volunteers could.

Almost two years later, the reality is a five-strand barbed-wire barrier that ranchers dismiss as a mere cattle fence.

The fence to help stop illegal immigration was the dream of Chris Simcox, the founder and president of the Minuteman Defense Corps.

The group has chapters throughout the country, with Minuteman members from as far away as New Hampshire making the trip down to Arizona to participate in citizens' border patrols. They are doing a job Simcox says the federal government is not doing well enough.

Simcox, who participated in border patrols as recently as October, has said, "If elected officials will not lead, then it's up to the citizens."

Volunteers say they heeded Simcox's call because they believe illegal immigration is a grave threat to the security of the United States. They say that they are patriots hoping to make a difference and that they want to help make the United States safe in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

"Here we were, grandparents, and we were willing to go down to the border and do something our government wouldn't do," explained Sandy Doty, a former member of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps. Video Watch how fence has not met volunteers' expectations »

On the Minuteman Web site and in e-mails to members, Simcox asked for donations while making big promises, including a vow to build a fence along the border. It was not just any fence; it was to be 2,000 miles of state-of-the-art fencing at a cost of $55 million.

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Simcox described it as "our high-tech, double-layered gauntlet of deterrent."

The fence was described on the Minuteman Web site as 14 feet high, with security cameras and sensors, topped with razor wire and flanked by ditches to stop vehicles. Simcox referred to it as an "Israeli-style" fence, similar to the barrier Israel has erected to keep Palestinians from crossing from the West Bank.

Many Minuteman state and national leaders said that the fence proposal was a complete surprise to them.

"All of a sudden we hear, 'We are going to build a fence if the government doesn't build it!' We all looked at each other and said, 'What!'" said David Jones, a former Minuteman member.

Donations started flowing in. One man actually mortgaged his home and contributed more than $100,000. And on Memorial Day of last year, there was a groundbreaking ceremony on John Ladd's Arizona ranch. But what the Minutemen were building was not a tall, Israeli-style fence.

Former member Bob Wright said, "It wasn't until they actually started the ceremony that it became clear. It was gonna be a cow fence!"

It was a five-strand barbed wire fence that would keep Ladd's cattle in and keep Mexican cattle out. Ladd said he is happy with the fence. But some Minuteman leaders were stunned. In their first-ever interview, these former Simcox lieutenants told CNN they believed that the groundbreaking was a ploy by Simcox to raise even more money.

As a group, these leaders started to question Simcox about how donations were being spent. They wanted to him to provide specifics as to how much money was being raised and how it was being used.

"To this day, we still don't know how much the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps has raised. We don't have a clue, not a clue," Wright said.

They said they wanted to know why the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps was not spending money to help volunteers patrol the borders.

"We needed equipment, and we were not getting equipment," Jones said.

They demanded that Simcox meet them in person to address their concerns and answer their questions. They say he refused to meet with them and subsequently fired them.

Simcox now says that he never promised to build the high-tech security fence on Ladd's ranch. And he insists the barbed-wire fence really does protect the country.

As the Minutemen strung their wire on Ladd's property, another Arizona border rancher, Richard Hodges, agreed to allow Simcox to build nearly a mile of that Israeli-style fence on his land.

That was 10 months ago. CNN visited Hodges' ranch a few weeks ago and found an as-yet-unfinished, tall, wire-mesh fence. There is no razor wire, no trenches, no cameras, which were to be the fancy facial-recognition type.

In a news release, Simcox claimed an Alabama company was going to provide those cameras, but the company told CNN it has made no deal to provide cameras and hasn't heard from the Minutemen in 18 months.

And what happened to all the money donated to the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps is in question.

Simcox posted his group's most recent tax filing and an independent audit on the Minuteman Web site. In the audit, the largest expense listed, by far, is for "professional services," with no further details given.

Meanwhile, Simcox continues to solicit donations to build a fence. But, lately, it sounds as though he is lowering expectations, saying the fence is really just a symbol, a way to prod the government into building a real barrier.

CNN asked Simcox for responses to all of the allegations made by the former insiders. He replied that all of the allegations, as well as CNN's investigation, are "a witch hunt" and "part of a smear campaign." Simcox declined several CNN requests for an interview.

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Paul Newman, the board supervisor of Cochise County, Arizona, where Simcox has been building his barbed wire fences, said Simcox's plan for a border fence was a pipe dream from the very beginning. He explained that because the border is a patchwork of public and private land, a private fence builder could never get permission to build on all of it.

Not only would there be wide gaps all along a fence built by the Minutemen, but in October 2006, President Bush signed into law an authorization for nearly 700 miles of federal fence along the Mexico border. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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